United States Supreme Court building invokes classical ideas of justice

Recently, I mentioned a conflict between people who want the government to do something about cyberbullying that can lead to suicide and people who worry about the fact that it would give both private companies and governments access to vast amounts of personal user information. It’s one of those dilemmas where the fact that everyone has a reasonable concern does not automatically suggest  a solution.

Here are some  factors to consider.

The Internet can be a serious addiction for some. Anyway, that’s the message from a recent article in Social Science:

• Consumers turn to these services for socializing, seeking entertainment, seeking self-status, and seeking information.

• More than 32% of participants report using these services more than 12 times per hour.

Science Magazine describes the addicts as “shy extroverts who want to be social.” Social science data should be consumed with caution. But the findings support a reasonable concern that already fragile people may disproportionately become addicts. Needless to say if the only exercise they get is moving their fingers around, they are likely to end up with health problems as well. Such people may end up as victimizers or victims. 

The second problem is that the people who seek to address these problems are usually good and well-meaning. Why is that a problem? Well, police officers have a phrase for the risk: “noble cause corruption”—justifying inappropriate actions because the cause is noble.

For example, suppose an officer is certain that the suspect is guilty because he has arrested him a number of times for similar offenses. But this time, the officer plants evidence on him that ensures that—just for once—that guy doesn’t get off on a technicality.

A study of policing in Canada, released today, found 322 cases of corruption in Canada’s national police force, the Mounties, in the decade 1995–2005. Admittedly, that isn’t a huge number over a decade in a national force involving tens of thousands, but consider:

Many cases of improperly sharing police information involved misuse of confidential details in police databanks, sometimes to family, friends or known criminals.

It would be no surprise if some officers were “only trying to help” someone.

The general idea of misusing information, especially information stored in data banks, to do good, can be seen in a number of areas today. Prominent science writer John Horgan contemplates the idea that it might be okay to lie if it helps fight global warming:

I’ll give the last word to one of my students. The Gleick incident, he said, shows that the “debate” over global warming is not really a debate any more. It’s a war, and when people are waging war, they always lie for their cause.

In the 2012 “Gleick incident,” documents were stolen from a skeptical think tank, the Heartland Institute. A document was alleged to have then been forged in an effort to discredit the Institute. Whatever may be the case with that, the really significant revelation was this:

In Britain’s leftist newspaperThe Guardian, for example, James Garvey writes that Gleick’s lie was “justified by the wider good.” The “wider good” is defined as suppressing any opposition to the global warming establishment. “What Heartland is doing is harmful, because it gets in the way of public consensus and action,” Garvey writes. So, “If Gleick frustrates the efforts of Heartland, isn’t his lie justified by the good that it does?”

You might reply that this is just what you’d expect from journalists, who have looser moral standards than, well, just about everybody. But the author’s bio informs us that “James Garvey is secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and”—get this—”author of The Ethics of Climate Change.” Notice the pattern here. These aren’t the rationalizations of a few rogue activists or hyper-partisan bloggers. This is coming straight from the intellectual heights of the establishment and specifically from those who have proclaimed themselves to be experts on scientific ethics. More.

The underlying assumption is troubling: One deceives people to get them to do what is right. But then no trust is built. Why believe anything the known deceiver says?

If climate change caused by human activity is a real and reversible threat, once trust has been destroyed, the only remaining tool would be simple coercion.

People sometimes argue whether the ends justify the means. The reality is that the means shape the ends. A society that promotes responsible energy or Internet use based on public trust will not be the same as a society that promotes such causes based on deceit or surveillance. By nature, it just can’t be.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...